In 1854, Captain Matthew Perry (no, not the star of Friends with a time machine, a different one) of the United States Navy traveled to Japan to politely request that they open themselves up to more world trade than just talking to Portugal from time to time. Except that it was less a “Please” than it was a “Do it or we’ll start killing people.”
In less than a decade and a half, the Tokugawa Shogunate, who had ruled the land for the last 250 years had been deposed and replaced with an emperor, during the period labeled the Meiji Restoration. The time of the Samurai had largely come to an end, but more importantly, the industrialization of Japan had begun.
Running nearly a century behind the rest of the world, Japan raced to catch up with Europe and America, those they wished to equal and maybe even trade with. While that kind of haste usually comes with imminent failure, due to not taking enough care while instituting the necessary societal advancements, Japan managed to pull it off. Though that’s not to say that there weren’t a few small snags along the way; every country had some mistakes.
One such occasion for Japan was Hashima Island in the Nagasaki prefecture, an island also known as “Gunkanjima,” a term that translates as “Battleship Island,” due to it being shaped like a Japanese Tosa-class battleship.
Originally settled and put to use by the Fukahori family in 1887, a couple decades after the beginning of Japanese industrialization, Hashima was the chosen location for a single mine shaft. After just three apparently successful years, the Mitsubishi company (now better known for their cars and electronics than for their coal) bought the mine for 100,000 yen (equivalent to a modern $3.9 million) and quickly installed two more, 200-meter mine shafts, deep enough to get well under the ocean, in under a decade.
The need for mine workers to make the shafts useful meant that the island became very crowded, since the turn-of-the-century, maritime commute was absolutely terrible. Because of this, Japan put in its first large-scale housing building on Gunkanjima in 1916. The island was home to more than 3000 people at that point, but also producing 150,000 tons of coal each year, so what reason was there to not get more miners and make it an even greater success?
During World War II, Japan of course wished to enlist as many of the country’s men in the military services, so the coal mining labor force went down around the board and some creative solutions had to be found. One fix for this issue was to use Korean labor, from the peninsula across the sea that Japan had conquered in 1910. It’s estimated that there were as many as 800 Korean slave laborers on Hashima alone in 1944-45, along with a fair number of Chinese POWs.
In 1959, the population of the island peaked at 5,259, earning it the distinction as the most densely populated place on the planet, cramming all those people into under 16 acres, and obviously not all of that was used as housing space. And not all of the apartment buildings were dedicated just to housing: there were also public use spaces in some, like schools, shops and even a gymnasium. Though since the landmass was so dedicated to space saving, there wasn’t any room for some of the important things, like growing food or manufacturing processed goods. Because of that, the island had to rely quite heavily on imports from the mainland.
By 1974, Hashima hit its end. The 1960s saw a rise in petroleum over coal in Japan, meaning that the need was much less. Additionally, Gunkanjima’s coal level was nearly depleted when Mitsubishi declared on January 15, 1974 that the mine was to be closed. Luckily though, the island’s inhabitants were given a solution for their unemployment woes. They could just relocate to the mainland for other Mitsubishi jobs, but only on a first come first serve basis. Within less than three months from the closure announcement, the last person from Hashima left for the mainland.
Today, Gunkanjima still remains in Nagasaki Harbor, abandoned and deteriorating. Buildings remain but only the ghosts of the people who once lived and worked on the island. A result of what happens when a single industry is responsible for the development of a city and that industry relies on a resource of limited life. Seen as a microcosm of the country as a whole, Japan has held up Hashima as why they must be able to support themselves completely, rather than depending largely on outside imports of vital goods.
If you’re thinking that this island seems familiar, it was used for long shots of the villain’s lair in the James Bond film Skyfall. For those who would like to experience this place for themselves, the island opened up again for visitors in 2009, allowing for urban spelunking expeditions.